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E. coli outbreak widens to Minnesota

14 new cases linked to Taco John's restaurants, source still unknown

Dec 12, 2006 | AP

A suspected E. coli outbreak that began in Iowa widened in Minnesota on Tuesday, with health officials linking 14 apparent cases to Taco John's restaurants in Albert Lea and Austin.

A spokesman for the Wyoming-based chain confirmed that the two southern Minnesota restaurants get their produce from the same supplier as the Taco John's in Cedar Falls, Iowa, where nearly three dozen people developed E. coli symptoms earlier this week after dining there.

Those infected all ate at the three restaurants in roughly the same time period, the last few days of November and the first few days of December, said Kirk Smith, supervisor of the Minnesota Department of Health's foodborne disease unit.

Half of the 14 Minnesota victims ate at the Albert Lea restaurant, the other half in Austin, Smith said. He said he wouldn't be surprised to see at least a few more cases crop up in the next day or two.

Taco John's spokesman Brian Dixon identified the produce supplier for the three restaurants as St. Paul-based Bix Produce. But he stressed that the restaurant chain doesn't yet know if the produce was the source of the E. coli. The disease can also be carried by undercooked meat, and Dixon said the chain is testing samples of all types of food from the restaurants in question.

"We're still trying to pinpoint exactly what happened," Dixon said. The company may decide to switch suppliers, he said.

Bix Produce Chief Operating Officer Duane Pfleiger stressed that produce has not been implicated in the illnesses and that the investigation is ongoing.

"There is no conclusive evidence pointing toward produce or any other item that might be the cause of this," he said, adding that Bix Produce has a strong safety record.

E. coli is a common, usually harmless bacteria, but certain strains can cause abdominal cramps, fever, bloody diarrhea, kidney failure, blindness, paralysis, even death.

It is found in the feces of humans and livestock. The germs can be spread by people if they do not thoroughly wash their hands after using the restroom.

Five of the Minnesota cases have been confirmed as E. coli at local hospitals, Smith said, but the Department of Health plans to make its own confirmation in each case. He said DNA testing will also be used to independently confirm that the Minnesota and Iowa contaminations came from the same source.

One victim hospitalized
One of the Minnesota victims has developed kidney complications and has been hospitalized, Smith said.

In the Iowa cases, preliminary test results showed that E. coli was the likely culprit for symptoms that sickened about 40 people and sent 18 people to the hospital in late November and early December.

The restaurants in Albert Lea and Austin have remained open. Both sites threw out their entire food supplies, and Dixon said both are entirely replacing their produce stock every four hours. He said the company has also sent in a trainer to check on restaurant conditions.


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